Individual tourism to North Korea 'win     DATE: 2024-07-15 15:54:04

Kyungnam University President Jae Kyu Park speaks during an interview with The<strong></strong> Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo
Kyungnam University President Jae Kyu Park speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo

By Kang Seung-woo

President Moon Jae-in's "ambitious" proposal for individual tourism by South Koreans to North Korea has been drawing both positive and negative comments.

Some praise it as a fresh means to engage the North and make progress in efforts to denuclearize the reclusive state, while critics claim it would breach international sanctions placed on Pyongyang.

However, Kyungnam University President Jae Kyu Park, a former South Korean minister of unification, believes it could serve as a win-win solution for inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. ties.

During his Jan. 14 New Year press conference, President Moon floated the idea of the government allowing citizens to make individual tours to the North, including possible hometown visits by families separated by the Korean War, as part of efforts to expand cross-border exchanges that he hopes will help improve relations between Pyongyang and Washington.

"President Moon presented a plan to break through the deadlock in inter-Korean relations. He is trying to get a positive response from North Korea by identifying areas in which both Koreas can interact despite the international sanctions on North Korea," Park said during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday.

"President Moon's proposal for individual tourism is not an attempt to distort the international community's joint efforts to implement sanctions on North Korea; rather, his administration is proposing that improving inter-Korean relations could serve as an engine to end the deadlock in North Korea-U.S. negotiations.

"I expect that the start of individual tourism will help the North Korean economy and help improve inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. relations."

Park believes the proposal would be palatable to the North, given that its leader, Kim Jong-un, has stressed his country's independent development of tourism industry to attract international travelers.

"Also, we need to remember that he also welcomes the idea of having tourists from South Korea," he added.

The North Korean regime has remained silent on the proposal for nearly a month, raising speculation that it has rejected the effort, but Park said it will take more time before the North comes up with an official response.

"I think that the fact that North Korea has yet to present an official position on this shows that the country's leaders are discussing the proposal seriously," he said.

"I expect that North Korea is, just like South Korea, taking time to create its plans for the year and, particularly considering how its government operates, it will take some time for the country's leadership to reach an agreement on how to respond to the proposal.

"Ultimately, I think that North Korea will respond positively to the individual tourism proposal but will present its own views on the various issues involved."

In response to the individual tourism plan, there is lingering disapproval ― especially from Washington, highlighted by U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris who said Seoul should hold prior consultations with Washington to avoid "misunderstandings" related to sanctions.

In fact, conservatives argue that the proposal, if implemented, would violate U.N. sanctions imposed over the North's nuclear and missile programs.

But Park, who played an instrumental role in and was the architect of the historic first-ever inter-Korean summit in June 2000, does not buy into this.

"Reportedly, some 200,000 tourists from China, Russia, Europe and other countries visited North Korea last year. Nobody said anything about international sanctions being a barrier for these tourists to enter the North," he said.

"Of course, I fully understand the concerns expressed by the U.S. about the sanctions on North Korea. I believe, however, that any concerns about how tourists enter the country and the personal belongings they carry can be resolved by creating a set of guidelines, and through consultations with the U.S."

Since the second summit between the North and the U.S. ended in failure in February 2019, there has been no sign of bilateral ties bouncing back.

In order to revive momentum for dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, Park said the U.S. needs to show more flexibility in its policies toward the North.

"There are difficulties in moving forward with inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation while international sanctions continue to be in force against the North," he said.

"The U.S. supports inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation, but has placed stress on 'adjusting the speed' of the relationship between the two Koreas. This idea that the two Koreas should 'slow down' is due to the perception that inter-Korean relations are somehow subordinate to North Korea-U.S. relations. The U.S. also adheres to the strategy of 'denuclearization first' before lifting any of the sanctions. If the U.S. shows more flexibility in its policies, this would bring more life to both denuclearization talks and inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation."

Kyungnam University President Jae Kyu Park speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo
President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un head toward the Military Demarcation Line in the border village of Panmunjeom during their meeting, June. 30, 2019. / Yonhap

NK-US relations

The continuing deadlock in talks between the North and the U.S. is prompting speculation that Pyongyang could resume nuclear testing after it threatened to unveil a new strategic weapon in the New Year.

Park expects the North Korean leader may carry out a limited-scale provocation that would not cross Washington's "red line."

"I think it is more likely that Kim would demonstrate his country's military might by conducting on-the-spot visits to rocket engine test sites, rather than ordering a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)," he said.

Park added that the North could publicize a new ICBM in the likely-to-be-held military parade in October at the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers' Party, or it may also try something like a satellite launch closer to the day of the U.S. presidential election in November in order to draw attention to itself.

However, despite the North's desire for progress in its negotiations with the U.S., the nuclear issue is likely to be pushed to the backburner due to the election.

"Past experience tells us that U.S. presidential elections have rarely placed importance on issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, including North Korea. I think that President Trump will not want North Korea to become a negative issue during the presidential campaign season," he said.

"Trump will prefer to maintain the status quo if he can continue to promote the fact that he has prevented North Korea from conducting any further nuclear tests or an ICBM test launch."

Park added that during his campaign, Trump is likely to put more weight on issues that loom larger in U.S. interests, such as the Middle East, Iran, and U.S.-China relations.

Korea-Japan ties

Bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan have made little progress despite a summit between President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last December to mend ties that has been worsened by Tokyo imposing export controls in July last year on certain goods shipped to Korea.

Park advised the Korean government not to seek immediate progress "on the details" in its ties with the Abe administration ― although the summit was significant.

"The conditions were not right to achieve those political and diplomatic solutions due to Japan's domestic politics this year and changes in state affairs," he said.

According to the former minister, Japan will be focusing on the Tokyo Olympics until August, and, after that, the country will undergo a political reorganization focused on finding Abe's successor.

"We need to avoid getting caught up in the details and focus our efforts on creating a future-oriented bilateral relationship that can be flexible toward changes within the international environment," Park said.

"Time is needed to bring about progress on the details. We must bring back trust in the relationship by acknowledging our differences while heading in the same direction."

Kyungnam University President Jae Kyu Park speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times photo by Kang Seung-woo
President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a meeting in Chengdu, China, Dec. 24, 2019, which was their first official meeting in 15 months. / Yonhap

Sino-Korea relations

Regarding South Korea's ties with China that have yet to show any sign of full rapprochement after Beijing's economic retaliation due to Seoul's decision to allow the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system here, Park believes Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned visit to Seoul in the first half of the year will help out.

"China took measures to punish Korea because of Seoul's THAAD deployment, but the Sino-South Korea relationship has actually improved gradually over time as evidenced by the increasing number of Chinese tourists in South Korea, dialogue held between high-level military officials, and the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)," he said.

"When considering the positions of South Korea and China in the region, there is an imperative for the two countries to repeal any measures that damage bilateral trust. President Xi's visit to South Korea this year will soothe economic and security-related concerns between the two countries and allow the relationship to develop one step further."

Park also said China needs to change its perception of South Korea as well.

"Korea is no longer a neighboring vassal of the past that pays tribute to China; China must recognize South Korea's economic growth and development and view Korea and South Koreans as a partner in the region," he said.

"That is why China must repeal measures to punish South Korea over the THAAD deployment and increase trust between the two countries through a great deal of exchanges and meetings."